Virtual reality is already being embraced for its entertainment value, as well as by the military and the scientific establishment. It is also a goal of The Singularity Movement to enable a full mind upload as we increase our merger with machines toward a path of supposed immortality.
However, scientists are beginning to study the effects of how virtual reality can impact one’s perception of themselves inside the virtual matrix, as well as a potential for transferred perceptions of those around them in the real world.
Early conclusions are troubling. It appears that not only can our moral behavior be affected, but parts of our brain that register spatial awareness and movement actually shut down when entering even the most realistic virtual environment.
New Scientist announced in July of last year a significant step in merging reality with virtual reality. A model avatar took the body of a four-year-old child; observations suggested that the mind can begin to merge with any body it wishes inside the digital landscape:
Mel Slater of the University of Barcelona in Spain and colleagues put 30 people in a virtual reality (VR) environment in the body of a 4-year-old child or a scaled-down adult the same height as the child. The virtual body, which moved in sync with movements of the real body, could be viewed from a first-person perspective and in a mirror in the VR environment.
But the influence of the virtual world illustrated the two-way information transfer that takes place beyond merely the physical.
Prior research by Slater’s team shows that when a person acquires a body type they have never experienced, social and cultural expectations often influence how they relate to the new body.
Indeed, one’s preconceptions in the real world impact the virtual experience, and actions taken in the virtual world are shown to impact the primary reality upon return:
Things we experience in a virtual landscape can also have profound effects on our behaviour in the real world: in a separate study by researchers at Stanford University in California, giving people superhero powers in a virtual environment made them behave in a more helpful manner in real life.
The researchers say that brain imaging studies would help them to understand the reorganisation that occurs when assimilating a new body. The motivation springs from a project looking at how to embody people in child-sized robots. “We thought we ought to look at the consequences of that first,” says Slater.
A more recent study published in the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology – Psychological Science – drew similar conclusions about how the virtual world can impact the real, and gives further insight into how easily a “player” can become programmed. This would seem to lend credence to those who assert that violent video games, for example, can lead to aberrant behavior that models the role one has assumed in the game. As the study illustrates, one does not necessarily need to identify with the character, which would rule out the argument that people with violent tendencies who play violent video games are prone to violent action later. With the added immersion of virtual reality, this potential is likely amplified.
“Our results indicate that just five minutes of role-play in virtual environments as either a hero or villain can easily cause people to reward or punish anonymous strangers,” says lead researcher Gunwoo Yoon of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As Yoon and co-author Patrick Vargas note, virtual environments afford people the opportunity to take on identities and experience circumstances that they otherwise can’t in real life, providing “a vehicle for observation, imitation, and modeling.”
They wondered whether these virtual experiences — specifically, the experiences of taking on heroic or villainous avatars — might carry over into everyday behavior.
The researchers recruited 194 undergraduates to participate in two supposedly unrelated studies. The participants were randomly assigned to play as Superman (a heroic avatar), Voldemort (a villainous avatar), or a circle (a neutral avatar). They played a game for 5 minutes in which they, as their avatars, were tasked with fighting enemies. Then, in a presumably unrelated study, they participated in a blind taste test. They were asked to taste and then give either chocolate or chili sauce to a future participant. They were told to pour the chosen food item into a plastic dish and that the future participant would consume all of the food provided.
The results were revealing: Participants who played as Superman poured, on average, nearly twice as much chocolate as chili sauce for the “future participant.” And they poured significantly more chocolate than those who played as either of the other avatars.
Participants who played as Voldemort, on the other hand, poured out nearly twice as much of the spicy chili sauce than they did chocolate, and they poured significantly more chili sauce compared to the other participants….
Interestingly, the degree to which participants actually identified with their avatar didn’t seem to play a role:
“These behaviors occur despite modest, equivalent levels of self-reported identification with heroic and villainous avatars, alike,” Yoon and Vargas note. “People are prone to be unaware of the influence of their virtual representations on their behavioral responses.”
The researchers hypothesize that that arousal, the degree to which participants are ‘keyed into’ the game, might be an important factor driving the behavioral effects they observed.
The findings, though preliminary, may have implications for social behavior, the researchers argue:
“In virtual environments, people can freely choose avatars that allow them to opt into or opt out of a certain entity, group, or situation,” says Yoon. “Consumers and practitioners should remember that powerful imitative effects can occur when people put on virtual masks.” (Source) [emphasis added]
Now UCLA neurophysicists have gone even a step further to show potential deleterious effects of the virtual reality experience, showing that the neurons which map spatial awareness, as well as memory, can actually shut down inside a virtual environment. They’ve likened it to a disruption in the “music” of our brains which appears to carry an inherent rhythm attuned to primary reality.
“The pattern of activity in a brain region involved in spatial learning in the virtual world is completely different than when it processes activity in the real world,” said Mayank Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics, neurology and neurobiology in the UCLA College and the study’s senior author. “Since so many people are using virtual reality, it is important to understand why there are such big difference
The scientists were studying the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, stroke, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. The hippocampus also plays an important role in forming new memories and creating mental maps of space. For example, when a person explores a room, hippocampal neurons become selectively active, providing a “cognitive map” of the environment.
The mechanisms by which the brain makes those cognitive maps remains a mystery, but neuroscientists have surmised that the hippocampus computes distances between the subject and surrounding landmarks, such as buildings and mountains. But in a real maze, other cues, such as smells and sounds, can also help the brain determine spaces and distances…
In the virtual world, the rats’ hippocampal neurons seemed to fire completely randomly, as if the neurons had no idea where the rat was — even though the rats seemed to behave perfectly normally in the real and virtual worlds.
“The ‘map’ disappeared completely,” said Mehta, director of a W.M. Keck Foundation Neurophysics center and a member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. “Nobody expected this. The neuron activity was a random function of the rat’s position in the virtual world.” ….
They also were shocked to find that although the rats’ hippocampal neurons were highly active in the real-world environment, more than half of those neurons shut down in the virtual space.
The virtual world used in the study was very similar to virtual reality environments used by humans, and neurons in a rat’s brain would be very hard to distinguish from neurons in the human brain, Mehta said.
His conclusion: “The neural pattern in virtual reality is substantially different from the activity pattern in the real world. We need to fully understand how virtual reality affects the brain.”
Neurons Bach would appreciate
In addition to analyzing the activity of individual neurons, Mehta’s team studied larger groups of the brain cells. Previous research, including studies by his group, have revealed that groups of neurons create a complex pattern using brain rhythms.
“These complex rhythms are crucial for learning and memory, but we can’t hear or feel these rhythms in our brain. They are hidden under the hood from us,” Mehta said. “The complex pattern they make defies human imagination. The neurons in this memory-making region talk to each other using two entirely different languages at the same time. One of those languages is based on rhythm; the other is based on intensity.”
Every neuron in the hippocampus speaks the two languages simultaneously, Mehta said, comparing the phenomenon to the multiple concurrent melodies of a Bach fugue.
Mehta’s group reports that in the virtual world, the language based on rhythm has a similar structure to that in the real world, even though it says something entirely different in the two worlds. The language based on intensity, however, is entirely disrupted.
When people walk or try to remember something, the activity in the hippocampus becomes very rhythmic and these complex, rhythmic patterns appear, Mehta said. Those rhythms facilitate the formation of memories and our ability to recall them. Mehta hypothesizes that in some people with learning and memory disorders, these rhythms are impaired.
“Neurons involved in memory interact with other parts of the hippocampus like an orchestra,” Mehta said. “It’s not enough for every violinist and every trumpet player to play their music flawlessly. They also have to be perfectly synchronized.” (Source – UCLA) [emphasis added]
Full study from Nature Neuroscience:
These studies are being done as Ray Kurzweil’s vision to merge our bodies and brains with cloud computing via DNA nanobots is coming closer to fruition. We would do well to consider the intended and unintended consequences much more closely while the divide between real and virtual still remains perceptible.